By the time Mariah Carey, er, performed in Times Square, Josh Pastner’s phone had attracted 400 text messages. They didn’t offer good wishes for 2017 so much as they brought congratulations tinged with incredulity. In the midst of the most overstuffed New Year’s in this city’s sports history, Pastner’s callow team had provided the most stunning result.
As most Georgia Tech fans were tuned to (or attending) the football team’s TaxSlayer Bowl victory against Kentucky and an hour before the Alabama-Washington Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl kicked off at the Georgia Dome, Pastner’s basketball team upset North Carolina 75-63. The good news: Even amid the holiday clutter, McCamish Pavilion was nearly full. The not-so-good: Most in attendance came wearing Tar Heel blue.
Pastner knew when he walked on the court that this would be a home game in name only. “I heard a loud roar,” he said, and he figured it wasn’t for him. “Carolina travels.”
The Heels, who nearly won the 2016 NCAA championship, were ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll. Earlier in the week, Pastner’s Yellow Jackets were forced to rally to beat North Carolina A&T, which was 1-11. The game before that, Tech outlasted Wofford 76-72. The game before that, Georgia came to town and won by 17.
With the shining exception of a road win at VCU, nothing these Jackets had done suggested they’d have a prayer against Carolina. An acquaintance had asked Pastner, “Can you handle not winning an ACC game in Year 1?” Here was his welcome-to-the-ACC moment — a home game against one of the sport’s blue bloods in which Tech fans were outnumbered
Darned if Tech didn’t stay close, though. The Heels never led by more than five points. The first half ended with the Jackets trailing 32-29. Said Pastner: “We did a pretty good job desensitizing the crowd. I know that sounds odd.”
With 11:59 remaining, freshman Josh Okogie made two free throws to give the Jackets a 46-45 lead. They wouldn’t trail again, which didn’t mean Pastner wasn’t expecting the staple Carolina Rally. At the under-eight-minutes TV timeout, he thought to himself, “At least this score will look respectable on the ticker.”
At the under-four timeout, Tech’s lead was six points. It would grow to 14. The Heels pressed. The Jackets broke the press for dunks. They made their free throws. “We were steady and sturdy,” Pastner said.
With 23 seconds remaining, Carolina coach Roy Williams walked down to shake Pastner’s hand because he feared the home crowd would storm the court at the final buzzer and keep the two apart. Apparently Ol’ Roy hadn’t grasped that there mightn’t have been enough Tech fans to storm anything.
Then it was over. The team picked to finish 14th in the 15-team had beaten Carolina. Even if there aren’t many more wins for these Jackets, they’ll always have this. “We’re 9-4 after 13 games,” Pastner said. “When I took the job in April, who’d have thunk it?”
Not this correspondent, and probably not this coach. “We’ve got a long way to go,” Pastner said. “Defensively we’ve been really good, and players have been excellent in their effort. But we’ve got a lot of deficiencies. Our margin for error is zero. Look at North Carolina A&T: We weren’t good and we almost lost. On Saturday we were near-perfect.”
For a program that is on its third coach since 2011, felling Carolina — which didn’t happen in five years under Brian Gregory — was a smiley-face moment. Pastner hopes to build off it but remains pragmatic: “We’re going have to be near-perfect every night. I told our team at the beginning where we’re at and what we have to do.”
He’d be lying, though, if he said he hadn’t had a happy New Year. “It’s a really big deal. I haven’t been in a program where we had to rebuild. At Arizona, we were always picked first and second in our league. At Memphis, we were picked first or second or third. I’ve never been at a place where we were picked next-to-last.”
As for Tech’s victory getting lost in the holiday whirl: Those 400 texts stood as evidence that more than a few folks had heard. “It got a lot of notice,” Pastner said. “In the recruiting world, everybody has noticed.”
Next up for Tech: Duke at Cameron on Wednesday, then Louisville at McCamish on Saturday. “Our first three ACC games are against coaches with 2,600 victories, nine national championships and three Hall of Fame rings,” Pastner said, speaking before it was announced Monday that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski would undergo back surgery on Friday. “I haven’t hit 40 yet.”
He was asked if he’d taken a screen shot of the conference standings. Duke has lost. Louisville has lost. Virginia has lost. Thanks to his team, Carolina has lost. Pastner laughed. “I did tell Marvin Lewis (once a Tech player, now an assistant athletic director): ‘We’re going into 2017 undefeated in the ACC.’ “